By Ethan Mallon
Photos by Enrique Carnicero
Derived from the Frank O’Connor short story published in 1931 and first adapted to the stage by Neil McKenzie in 1958, Guests of the Nation made its way to the stage once again for the Cork Midsummer Festival in June. Brought to life through the talents of director Pat Kiernan and writer Kevin Barry, this new adaptation both instilled its own distinct flavour to the casting and direction whilst still retaining the spirit and bite of O’Connor’s original work. Set during the Irish War for Independence, Guests of the Nation chronicles the story of 4 soldiers; two Irish, two British, as they struggle with the trials and tribulations of the war whilst inevitably hurtling towards the death of the latter by execution.
Right from the word go I was engaged by the stark humanity portrayed in the imprisoned British soldiers as they grappled with their impending fates. Whereas the majority of works depicting the War for Independence would entirely portray the British in a negative light, Barry’s script offers a more morally grey portrayal of the Brit’s, bringing into question the morale of the IRA ironically. This is not to imply that the former approach is inherently a negative, see Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley for what can be achieved with such an approach, but to put emphasis not on the frankly psychotic slaughter of civilians often enacted by the Black & Tans but instead the humanity of those caught up in the torture and bloodshed that ultimately had no direct ties to such barbaric actions was an impressive and bold choice.
Of course a distinct element of this adaptation I have otherwise overlooked thus far would be the all-female cast with Gina Moxley, Liz Fitzgibbon, Amy Conroy and Chloe O’Reilly portraying the IRA and British soldiers respectively. Any potential scepticism was swiftly dashed out as the play began proper, as all four women did a phenomenal job engrossing me into the narrative. I can’t say for certain whether this was a direct decision by the creative team, but it made me think during and after the show about how certain gender archetypes influence how people may make casting decisions. This isn’t to say that masculine men or feminine women for instance aren’t still present in the modern world of course, but the assumption that everyone of both genders only fall into certain demographics is simply misguided, something this show fortunately goes against the grain on.
Another key aspect of this iteration of the story is that it is not squarely resigned to the stage for its entirety, rather the audience is taking across the city of Cork much as the characters go across the Irish countryside. Not only does this result in an incredibly distinct vibe to the proceedings than I have ever seen in any stage production thus far, but it also allows the audience some time, albeit brief, to muse on the characters actions and the trajectory of the narrative. It’s not as if most stage shows don’t have a standard intermission of course, but those are usually during the middle point. By making the audience go from place to place at three separate intervals gives more instances to ponder on the story at hand and what is trying to be conveyed.
Overall I’d say that this new iteration of Guests of the Nation has more than surpassed my expectations. Through adapting O’Connor’s new work whilst integrating their own distinct elements, Kiernan and Barry have simultaneously revamped the show in some ways for a modern audience whilst still retaining the spirit of the original short story, of which still retains a strong potency a little over ninety years after its first publication.
Ethan Mallon is a member of Act Out Youth Theatre in Co. Meath and is a Young Critic for 2022.